How might studying lizards help humans regenerate?

Everyone knows lizards can regrow their tails. But these scientists asked why humans couldn’t regrow stuff too.

Healing by regenerating cells is something out of Wolverine comics, right? Well no, it happens in the natural world too. So when scientists started looking into whether it’s a technology we can use for humans, they didn’t call Hugh Jackman. They looked at a lizard.

Why lizards?

Green anole lizard
Green anole lizard (Joel Robertson/Arizona State University)

A number of other animals, including salamanders, tadpoles and fish, can also regenerate tails – and sometimes limbs.

But lizards are the most closely-related animals to humans that can regenerate entire appendages. Like lots of animals they share the same basic genes as humans, which means the research might have a load of useful medical applications.

Cutting-edge gene sequencing technology was used to study the process in the green anole lizard, Anolis carolinensis.

So, how far has this reptilian research come?

Green anole lizard
(Patti Haskins/Flickr)

Well, we’ve found out a lot more about lizard genetics for a start.

“We discovered that they turn on at least 326 genes in specific regions of the regenerating tail, including genes involved in embryonic development, response to hormonal signals and wound healing,” explained Professor Kenro Kusumi, from Arizona State University.

Green anole lizard
(Amanda Gyllenhaal/Flickr)

All animals with regenerative abilities use what is known as the “Wnt pathway”. This gives the molecular signals needed to control stem cells in many tissues – including the brain, hair follicles and blood vessels.

But lizards were found to have a unique pattern of tissue growth that is distributed throughout the tail.

Will humans ever be able to regenerate?

Hugh Jackman talks at Wolverine premiere
(Shuji Kajiyama/AP)

Well that might be getting a little ahead of ourselves. But scientists hope that understanding how lizards regenerate could lead to new technologies for medical science.

“By following the genetic recipe for regeneration that is found in lizards, and then harnessing those same genes in human cells, it may be possible to regrow new cartilage, muscle or even spinal cord in the future,” said Prof Kusumi.

Then maybe one day we can all be a little more like Hugh Jackman.

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